The COVID-19 pandemic elevated the critical need that all individuals have access to high-speed, affordable internet. One problem has to do with geography: particularly in rural areas, including within Calhoun County, internet is not available because the infrastructure does not exist. To bridge the digital divide related to access and affordability, the Calhoun County Broadband Task Force was formed in May 2021 by the Calhoun County Board of Commissioners, to be supported by county administration. The task force’s purpose is to pursue the provision of high-speed, reliable internet services to ALL residents and businesses in Calhoun County at a reasonable cost. The Calhoun County Broadband Task Force recognizes that high speed internet promotes economic development, quality of life, housing development, village/city infrastructure and access to healthcare and education.
Michael "Mac" McCullough from Battle Creek’s Willard Library initiated this effort after witnessing how COVID-19 pandemic closures affected numerous residents who no longer had access to the library's internet or computers. So many people rely on libraries as their access to the outside world, particularly if they can't receive or afford internet at their homes. McCullough began asking: How can we solve this? He brought people together across industries to discuss this challenge and found traction as a grassroots effort—even raising $40,000 from community partners who recognized this massive need in our community. As this grassroots effort gained momentum, McCullough approached the County to see if it could be adopted as an official task force.
The Calhoun County Broadband Task Force is made up of various sectors and stakeholders including multiple elected officials, as well: Michigan House Representative Jim Haadsma, County Board Vice Chair Gary Tompkins, County Commissioner Jake Smith, and City of Battle Creek Commissioner Kathy Szenda Wilson.
The first step in the process of increasing access to reliable internet is data collection. Working with the Michigan Merit Network, from July-October 2021, residents were asked to complete a survey regarding internet speeds and usage in the county currently. The results of this survey, which will be presented at the first December County Board of Commissioners meeting, will be incorporated into a feasibility study that Calhoun County will complete with the assistance of Aspen Wireless. Aspen Wireless will assist the county in completing MetroAct requirements, as mandated by Michigan law, as well as issuing an RFP that will outline the expectations the task force has for eventual implementation of a reliable internet network. The RFP issuance and MetroAct public meetings will likely take place before the end of 2021, with decisions made in early 2022 about how to implement the infrastructure needed to bring high-speed internet, preferably fiber, to all residents in rural Calhoun County.
The process of providing internet access even in the most rural parts of Calhoun County will likely take a few years, but Calhoun County now has the foundation necessary with the Task Force to make this mighty change as quickly as possible. In addition to tackling the monumental task of providing internet, the Task Force will also address affordability of access in "served" parts of the county and adoptability of internet tools once internet is available. The task force wishes to ensure that all residents can be proficient with this technology and benefit from it fully.
The Task Force sees its success as contingent on public participation and plans to continually update stakeholders about its progress through informational emails like this, as well as updates in county communications. To be added to the list of those who receive these updates or to ask questions of the group, please email Calhoun County Communications Manager Lucy Blair at email@example.com.